Using our Freedom Wisely: Paul on Eating Idol Meat and Giving Up our Wants for the Sake of Others

Sermon prepared for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

“Do you really have to walk around the house in your boxers when my mother is here?”

“It’s my house – I can do whatever I want.”

“But c’mon, you know how much that annoys her.”

“Sorry – my house; my rules!”

Does this ring a bell with any of us here today? Surely none of us have been annoyed when asked not to do something that we have every right to do, just for the sake of keeping the peace? (I didn’t think so!)

Early Christians in the church in Corinth were having just such a disagreement. A little bit of background: in the Greek and Roman culture of the day, meat was often first offered up as a burnt offering to idols representing their polytheistic gods. Whatever didn’t get burned was often sold at market. Jews knew very well they were NOT to eat this meat because it had been defiled by the pagan ritual.

Some early Christians, though, figured “hey, we’re not Jewish anymore, so we don’t have to follow those stuffy dietary laws! Idol meat in on the menu tonight!” Others, though, said, “no! we were taught not to eat that, and dietary laws or no it’s still defiled by the pagan offerings.” It was causing some conflict among the Corinthian believers.

So Paul writes to them with his take on the matter, which is found in today’s epistle reading. “Look,” he says, “if the idol god isn’t real, then the meat isn’t really cursed–it’s just meat, so it’s not a big deal; God doesn’t care if you eat it or not!” A win for the meat eaters!

But not so fast, Paul says. There’s a more important issue at stake. It’s fine to eat the idol meat, but there are many new Jewish converts who are still probably very suspicious about it. It’s really hard to change a lifetime of habits overnight, so how about we be sensitive to that? Think about this this way, he says, what effect might the idol meat have on new converts who are still growing in their faith and knowledge of God and The Way? They might say ‘oh, so Christians still eat the idol meat, so those gods must still be real! I’ll go on praying to both Apollo AND Jesus.” OR they might see you eating the idol meat and decide that Christians are really just a bunch of hypocrites and so maybe this new religion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

See the dilemma?

So, Paul asks, “what’s more important? Exercising your freedom to do whatever you want, or to be sensitive to your friends and family who maybe don’t see the world the same as you? Can we instead meet them where they are so that we can help them grow and come closer to God and each other?”

Now, there are of course times when we need to stand up for ourselves, our desires, and our rights, especially when the dignity and worth of other human beings is involved. But here, Paul’s says that the idol meat is… not one of these times. Sure, it’s your RIGHT to eat it, but it’s just dinner–how about you just pick something else if it’s causing a major conflict and refocus on how you can help others?”

In our day, many conflicts and disagreements come at the nexus of rights of the individual and the interests of the community. We live in a society and culture where most of the time, the individual comes first, others come second.

We have the right to refuse to wear a mask, for instance, when we go out in public during a global pandemic, and to gather in large groups to practice our freedom of worship… but is exercising that right more important than protecting the lives of our friends and neighbors so that they too might look forward to enjoying the privilege of gathering together in worship or at family gatherings?

We may have the right, in righteous indignation, to “call out” people on social media for a poorly thought-out comment or viewpoint, looking forward especially to the praise and acclaim we’ll get from those who agree with us. But is that more important than trying to create God’s Kingdom with loving words and actions, seeing above all to build up instead of tear down?

I do indeed have every right to live a life focused solely on myself, my wants, and my needs. But is this ultimately more important than loving and serving God and my neighbor?

As Paul said: “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. … So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. …  Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

May we have the wisdom to discern these situations as they arise in our own lives, and the grace and humility to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves when needed.

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